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Minnesota native Paul Jacobson decided to attend Auburn University in Alabama for its aviation program, planning to fulfill his boyhood dream of becoming a pilot. He enrolled in Air Force ROTC and had earned his pilot’s license when he was asked about his medical history.

“I’d had asthma as a child but I grew out of it at age 14,” he recalled in a recent interview in his office at Delta Headquarters in Atlanta. “Unfortunately the cutoff for the ROTC program was 12; after that supposedly it could reoccur. I had self-disclosed … obviously it was the right thing to do. But I couldn’t be a pilot.

“I was devastated. I didn’t know what I would do.”

Passionate about aviation, Jacobson charted a new path in the field through a degree in aviation management. Ultimately, he turned a career roadblock into a top position at one of the world’s foremost airlines.

“I’ve gotten more out of the setbacks in my career than the successes,” he said.

Jacobson spoke of that experience during the interview and shared insights on servant leadership, thinking differently and being patient.

What do you think makes a successful leader?
I’m a fan of humility, of never asking your people to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself, and recognizing your own strengths and weaknessess. People tend to see executives as superhuman and that’s just not true. Once I was deep into giving a speech and as I’m gesticulating to make my point, I notice my fly is open. Of course I’m embarrassed and I say, “I’ve just noticed something you’ve all known for 30 minutes, that my fly is open. Why don’t I address that.” At the end of the day executives are human beings. We just have different roles to play.

In terms of leading people, constant feedback is important. Having candid conversations, being willing to have uncomfortable conversations. Coaching people, being honest and up front. In that dynamic, people can succeed and grow. The more we can provide that feedback to employees, the more they can grow and contribute.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Servant leadership. My job is to provide as much opportunity for the people I’m responsible for while fulfilling the company’s mission. I think to myself, how can I leave the finance department in better shape than when I arrived? I think it’s by developing people and helping them to drive results. Our finance team does more than we ever thought we could do. Challenge your team and get out of the way, but of course there’s got to be accountability.

Also, it’s how you treat people. When Richard (Anderson, Delta’s CEO) was new I remember he called an all-hands meeting of executives. I didn’t know Richard that well yet and my daughter had an event at school I needed to attend. I emailed him and said I needed to be with my daughter, but if he wanted me to be in the meeting I would change my plans. He said no, be with your family. Later, after the meeting, someone joked that I had been sucking up to the boss. Apparently Richard had told everybody why I wasn’t at the meeting and that I had my priorities right.

The more we can provide feedback to employees, the more they can grow and contribute.

How do you make decisions?

I tend to have an initial reaction and then go to some trusted people and pressure-test my thinking. You don’t want to have a deferential culture; you want people who will give you the truth, not their view of what they think you want to hear. That doesn’t help.

What do you think are a leader’s biggest challenges?

To me, it’s the thing that separates managers from leaders. Leaders have no problem surrounding themselves with people who are smarter than they are and drawing from that expertise. Managers do the opposite. They don’t want to be challenged. You have to break out of that mindset.

What are you proudest of in your career?

I’m the proudest of what this formerly small, Southeastern airline has become over the past 10 years: the most valuable airline in the world. We’ve demonstrated that you can differentiate yourself in the marketplace with excellent customer service and operations. It’s incredible what Delta people can do together. To be CFO now has been a real blessing. Now we just need to prove we can sustain this success.

My job is to provide as much opportunity for the people I’m responsible for while fulfilling the company’s mission.

How about a mistake or misstep that you’d like to have back?

We are who we are because of our experience and our setbacks. I wouldn’t change anything about what’s happened. When I couldn’t be a pilot I thought my life was over. We can drive ourselves crazy second-guessing, but that’s not helpful. Use the setbacks and mistakes to become stronger.

As CFO you’re not just a financial person; you’re a top strategist in the company. Describe your role.

I have a strategic seat at the table, as I have had for most of my career, but for much of the time the role was about survival. How do we raise liquidity against the backdrop of a failing business? The airline business was a broken one. We’d have periods where everything was great and expenditures went way up, and then we’d hit a down period in the economy and we’d be losing billions a year.

Chapter 11 was transformational, as was consolidation because it allowed us to drive synergies among airlines. Now there’s one theme: Sustainability. We need to build slowly and sustainably, like a UPS or FedEx. We need to operate like a successful world-class business, not just a successful airline. We need to be sustainable through the worst times, so we’re making money then too. That’s why we’re doing things differently than other airlines. The status quo hasn’t worked for this industry. Why would we do the same things that got us in trouble before? We need to keep that scrapper mentality of always pushing ourselves to a higher standard.

What is your favorite or most notable item in your office?

(Jacobson walks to a framed letter to Delta from a bank saying it didn’t want to do further business with the airline. It arrived during Delta’s restructuring.)

It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come since 2005, and how to treat people right. If you don’t, they’re not going to be there for you when times get tough. That goes for employees and customers as well. The letter reminds me of that lesson.

We are who we are because of our experience and our setbacks. Use the setbacks and mistakes to become stronger.

What career advice would you give?

Be patient. I was guilty of this myself, but people have such a mentality of, “I need it now.” That promotion, that pay raise.

You need to focus on learning a skill that’s going to be valuable at Delta or even somewhere else. You need to build depth. My goal was to be Treasurer at Delta Air Lines. I achieved that by age 33, but not because I was seeking promotion after promotion. I was growing, building my skills and depth, and the opportunities came. Work on building that skill and success will come. You just have to be patient.

Paul Jacobson, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

  •  Age: 43
  •  Hometown: Maple Grove, Minn.
  •  Education: B.A. Auburn University, M.B.A. Vanderbilt University
  •  Delta career: Joined in 1997 as a financial analyst. Briefly left the company and returned in 2005 as Treasurer. Became CFO in 2012.